Reporting by Jake Brown
With heat-waves stoking temperatures outside to their peak while thermostats plunged inside to as air conditioners and fans ran round-the-clock battling what Accuweather reported was “the hottest weather of the year so far will broil much of the central United States into this weekend. While many may welcome summer heat, temperatures will climb high enough to be dangerous for people who have to be outdoors for hours.” Hammering home just how high the risks were that came along with the temperatures, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Henry Margusity emphasized that “the combination of heat, humidity, sunshine and other conditions will push…temperatures to 100 F or higher in some locations of the Central states, especially in urban areas late this week and into the weekend.”
Plaguing communities across the United States, Accuweather reported that temperatures in many areas from Texas northward to the Dakotas and eastward to Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee will reach the 90s on one or more days. Major cities that can expect their hottest day of the year so far include Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati and Nashville. Cities such as Kansas City, Missouri; Des Moines, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska; Topeka, Kansas; Oklahoma City and St. Louis will be sweltering with highs in the 90s for five days in a row or more. Portions of the Plains and the Mississippi Valley will meet the heat wave criteria into this weekend. A heat wave is defined as reaching 90 F or above for three consecutive days. The very hot and humid air will also extend across much of the Southeastern states this weekend, following a couple of days of relatively cool conditions with low humidity…If the temperature reaches 100 in Omaha, Nebraska, any day through Sunday, it will be the hottest day since May 14, 2013, when the high was 101.”
Cautioning vulnerable households across the country about the life-threatening danger the weather would pose to millions of LIHEAP-dependant families, Meteorologist Margusity warned that “the heat will reach dangerously high levels and will raise the risk of dehydration, hyperthermia and heat stroke for those who cannot tolerate hot weather very well or who overexert themselves. Each year, on average, heat is second only to flooding in terms of weather-related fatalities.” With LIHEAP help lines heating up around the nation as hot as the summer sun, in Ohio, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) brought home the welcome news from Washington D.C. that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had released more than $14.5 million to the State to help cool the concern.
Rallying the state’s Community Action Agencies as Ohio’s The Home Energy Assistance Summer Crisis program was activated to begin immediate disbursement of the funds on July 1st through the end of August to combat the heat, David Goodman, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, took to the local airwaves to encourage households in need to apply as immediately and early as possible for LIHEAP assistance, reasoning that such urgency was called for to “to reduce the risk of heat related illness during July and August. These two months can be extremely hot in Ohio and that can take a toll on older Ohioans and Ohioans with breathing conditions,” while Senator Sherrod Brown added that “LIHEAP gives low-income families and seniors the ability to keep their homes…cool in the summer. As we get closer to warmer temperatures, it’s a relief that Ohio will have additional funding to distribute to those most in need.”
Throughout the Midwest, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association broadcast the good news to their considerable Rural reader base in mid-June that Congress had “LIHEAP funding would remain level under a bipartisan spending bill cleared by a Senate panel,” marking the first Bi-Partisan Senate-Labor HHS bill in seven years that preserved LIHEAP funding, reflecting the priority it was considered among the Senators around the country on both sides of the aisle when negotiating the pact. Reflecting the rare momentum of priority among an otherwise divided-on-most-issues Senate, the Cooperate reported that “the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program would receive $3.39 billion in fiscal 2017 under the funding package. It passed the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee June 7, and was approved by the full Senate Appropriations Committee two days later. Acknowledging the challenges the bill’s two chief negotiators, Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, both emphasized cooperation where LIHEAP funding was concerned, a reflection of the importance both know the program makes for their constituents, Senator Blunt proudly pointed out that “even in a year with considerable fiscal constraints, we were able to focus the bill on preserving core activities and funding programs that provide the most benefit to all Americans.”
Down South in Arkansas, as LIHEAP intake centers around the state prepared for their summer application season to begin, one prominent Jonesboro CAA, Crowley Ridge’s Development Council’s Human Services Coordinator Rhonda Keiter – conscious of the severe heat waves that had already begun afflicting her state and its most vulnerable residents – took to the airwaves in an exclusive interview with Channel 5 Action News to hammer home just how crucial a difference this assistance makes during the summer months: “I can’t stress enough how important this is. I see people come in. I hear their stories, and some of them are heartbreaking. Some of them just need help because a car broke down. Unexpected things that come up. And they just don’t have the money right now to pay the electric bill. That’s what we’re here for,” adding of the challenges facing both applicants and CAAs that “this time, we’re starting off with regular and crisis both. This time, we have enough funding that we are able to start out with crisis and regular (summer cooling) assistance.”
Meanwhile, in neighboring Tennessee, the Upper Cumberland Human Resource Agency announced that they had been awarded summer cooling funds, with Executive Director Luke Collins celebrating the fact that “with these funds in the coming year, UCHRA will be able to provide utility assistance to low-income individuals.” Sadly, the news was not nearly as optimistic a state over in Illinois, where chronic budget battles between the Governor’s office and the State Legislature have left vulnerable citizens out in the cold and now in the heat after the state’s LIHEAP coordinator released the devastating news that her office had been informed by state officials that there would be NO SUMMER COOLING Program.
Back East, illustrating an inspired example of advocacy in action to combat gridlock like the aforementioned that comes at the expense of those most in need, a new legal defense organization for the elderly and disabled – the Rhode Island Center for Justice – spent June standing up for the rights of the elderly and disabled in New England, pointed to an alarming spike in calls for help heading into the summer as a consequence of the reality that “after May 1, the National Grid truck is a familiar sight in some neighborhoods as households that are behind on their bills lose their power. Some will go months without it, until the fall, when federal heating assistance becomes available to people who qualify.” Profiling vulnerable residents like 73-year-old Ramon Rodriguez, suffering from diabetes and terminal lung disease, who declared that the Center for Justice’s efforts “saved my life, if it weren’t for that (organization), there would be a lot of people dying,” The Rhode Island Monthly, profiling another grateful recipient of the Center for Justice’s helping hand, spotlighted Penny Medeiros, an oxygen-dependant disabled 50-something with C.P.O.D.
As summer approached, Medeiros became so desperate to beat back the heat, she’d already gone through “a careful list of all the programs and organizations that have helped her with her utility bills over the years: from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to Interfaith Community Action, the Wiley Center, the Catholic Diocese of Providence, the United Way of Rhode Island and the Lion’s Club. On September 29, 2015, advocates for low-income Rhode Islanders used a new strategy in the long fight over utility turnoffs: a class-action lawsuit designed to protect the state’s medically vulnerable residents. They estimated that number to be about 3,000 to 5,000 households around the state…Working with referrals from the Wiley Center’s community meetings, the Center for Justice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Medeiros and four other clients who were behind on their bills and whose power was turned off despite living with life-threatening chronic illnesses. Thousands of people with medical conditions have been turned off over the years. The Center for Justice worked with civil rights lawyer Lynette Labinger and sued National Grid; Thomas Ahern, the longtime administrator of the DPUC; and James Lanni, an associate administrator there who oversees applications for emergency restoration of gas and electricity service.”
Doubling down on just how brutal not only the summer temperatures but the sky-high electricity bills they generate and how truly life-threatening this can be for elderly and disabled households during a heat wave who go not days, but even hours, without air conditioning due to a utility shut-off or reduced use because of a fear of a shut-off, lead attorney and executive director of the Center for Justice, Robert McCreanor, argued that “utility service is expensive, inordinately expensive, for low-income households in Rhode Island, but these are not people who never paid the bills. They struggled to do that, but the issue really is that there are protections in the law that are meant to avoid folks from being hospitalized when their electricity has been shut off.” Highlighting egregious recent instances where this fear had in fact been realized, the Rhode Island Monthly revealed that “as the colder weather approached last year, the Center for Justice went to court again seeking to get power turned on for seriously ill and disabled clients who had gone without it for months, asking for a temporary restraining order against National Grid and the DPUC. After a hearing before Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel on November 25, 2015, the utility company and the DPUC agreed to immediately restore electricity to all households in Rhode Island that had been previously designated as “medically protected” by National Grid — the 3,000 to 5,000 households — and had had their power shut off in the four months before the hearing… In comparison to other states, Howat of the National Consumer Law Center says he’s witnessed ‘almost animosity’ from state regulators in Rhode Island toward people who struggle to pay their utility bills.”
In Denver, advocacy for increased utility assistance funding was front and center at the annual National Energy and Utility Affordability Coalition conference, where 570 national energy assistance leaders gathered from around the country to brainstorm on the most dynamic, fresh ways to approach maximizing advocacy on the local level while working to increase Federal funding levels for energy assistance, primarily in the form of LIHEAP, achievement was recognized during the gathering as well, with NEUAC reporting that its “most prestigious public service award, named for Sister Pat Kelley who founded the national energy assistance effort, will be presented to Skip Arnold, executive director of Energy Outreach Colorado. The Victorine Q. Adams award, recognizing excellence and innovative work with a fuel fund, will be given to HeartShare Human Services of New York. Minneapolis, MN -based Xcel Energy will be recognized with the Corporate Excellence Award.”
Calling national attention in closing to just how crucial this program is to surviving the summer threat of heat-related causalities or severe health risks for vulnerable households around the country, The Huffington Post published an impassioned editorial by the Founder of the Energy Equity Alliance which in the same breath underscored just how vulnerable the program itself was from a demand-outgrowing-funding perspective, cautioning that “the first day of summer is approaching, and so too will its accompanying hot, humid weather. Throughout most of the United States we get hot summers and cold winters, and during both of those peaks, utility bills can become unaffordable. Thankfully, there is a ray of hope for those in need. Since 1981, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) has supported millions of families in need of immediate energy assistance to either heat or cool their residences. Earlier this month, the federal government released an additional $33 million in LIHEAP funding.”
Underscoring for natural skeptics that “despite popular arguments, LIHEAP is not an entitlement program, unlike entitlement programs, LIHEAP is for families who just need a hand-up,” Mr. Honig highlighted the unfortunate reality that for as appreciated as the $33 million in summer cooling assistance is, “because of our economy, there is far greater demand than funds available. According to the most-recent data, the program was able to serve less than one out of five LIHEAP-eligible households. The number of families in need of assistance is growing…It is important to remember that most LIHEAP dollars go to the most vulnerable among us – elderly households, the disabled, or families with small children. LIHEAP is for those who otherwise would have to choose whether to cool their homes or have healthy meals for their families.” Concluding the impassioned editorial with a call to action, the Huffington Post’s coverage wrapped with a (plea) for “citizens from all communities should be concerned, for we all have had a need for help at least once. This is a call to action for our houses of worship and those who work with the poor and anyone who cares about their fellow citizens…Groups like the Energy Equity Alliance are working to build support for more fair and equitable energy policies. In this case, some simple funding will make a big difference to these lives that matter too.”